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Growing Old Gracefully

May 1st, 2012


Posted by Dr. Pamela Barker

When you share your life with a beloved pet, the years fly by all too quickly. One day your children come home with a tiny kitten they found under the neighbour’s porch. In no time, those same kids are attending university and that endearing kitten is a long-treasured member of your family.

The good news is that our pets are living longer than ever. Thanks to vaccinations and improvements in veterinary care, many domestic animals now live well into their teens — and a few even reach a third decade.

It’s important to remember that pets age on a different timeline than their owners. The adage about one human year equaling seven pet years really only applies to a fairly narrow range in the life of a dog or cat. If you think of human aging as a diagonal line, pet aging looks more like bell curve. There is a comparatively short youth, followed by a much more rapid progression of old age.

Cats and small breeds of dog mature quite rapidly, generally reaching physical and sexual maturity between 9 and 12 months of age. So a year-old cat or small dog is essentially at the same stage of life as your typical high school senior. (Parents of teenagers may wish their own kids could sail though adolescence in a few short months!) Larger breeds of dog may take anywhere from 18 months to two years to reach maturity.

From there, pets tend to age fairly uniformly — but by the age of six or seven years, the aging process again begins to vary widely. Among giant breeds of dogs, for example, ages eight to 10 are the geriatric years. Many of these lovely breeds, sadly, do not live into their teens.

For healthy cats and most other dogs, however, these years represent the prime of life. Indeed, cats and some toy breed dogs may be well into their early or mid teens before owners start to notice the physical signs typical of advancing age. On the other hand, larger dogs — such as retrievers, shepherd-type breeds and others of similar size — will begin to show signs of aging earlier.

Regardless of their chronological age, once pets reach their geriatric years they begin to show the same kinds of physical changes that we see in ourselves as the retirement years approach.

Many owners become concerned when they notice the cloudy blue haze that sometimes appears in the eyes of older dog or cat. It shouldn’t be cause for alarm, though. If there’s no sign of discharge or redness, and no evidence (such as blinking or rubbing) to suggest it’s causing pain, then what you’re seeing is likely just a natural consequence of advancing age — a gradual hardening of the lens of the eye, which is the structure that allows us to adjust our sight for fine motor tasks. Unless your pets like to read or do needlepoint, they won’t be troubled by it.

A progressive loss of hearing is another common sign of aging; it may even afford a degree of comfort to a senior pet, as it does help turn down the volume if the household is a particularly boisterous. Owners, however, sometimes find it a bit distressing to discover that their pets don’t always come when called anymore. (Then, again, if you have cats you’re probably used to being ignored.)

Arthritis in geriatric pets is as common as it is among senior citizens. If you live long enough, the years of wear and tear on your joints begin to add up. The joints become less flexible — and in advanced cases can cause quite a lot of pain. Cats and dogs usually signal this pain through a decrease in their normal activities, or a reluctance to do things they used to do, such as jumping up on a bed or climbing stairs. Dogs suffering from chronic pain may pant even when they are neither hot nor tired. Pets may also sleep excessively to escape the discomfort.

Some changes in behaviour can indicate a potentially serious health issue. Owners of senior pets should be especially alert for any change in appetite. An animal that gradually loses its appetite or that must be coaxed into eating with treats should see a veterinarian. The change may be caused by infected, loose or painful teeth, or may signal the nausea resulting by an internal organ problem. Cats or dogs that eat voraciously but still lose weight might be suffering from diabetes, kidney disease or even cancer. Excessive thirst is also a warning sign. It’s a common symptom of several serious but treatable diseases.

Keep an eye out for these signs. Pets, like people, stand the the best chance of recovery when illness is diagnosed in the early stages.

Next time, we’ll discuss ways to help keep your aging pets happy and comfortable in their twilight years. There is nothing quite so comforting as the warmth of a old cat snoozing in your lap, or a loving look from the faithful, grey-muzzled dog you’ve raised from a rambunctious pup. There are many things you can do to make sure this will be a wonderful time for both of you.

Dr. Pamela Barker is a professional veterinarian with more than 15 years of experience, currently practicing in 100 Mile House, B.C. Her special areas of interest include animal behaviour and training, nutrition and condition for canine athletes, and public education about animal health and care. If you’d like to suggest a topic for one of her future blog posts, please feel free to leave a comment below.

Lumps And Bumps

April 10th, 2012


Posted by Dr. Pamela Barker

Discovering an unusual growth on your pet’s body can be a scary experience. With so much media attention devoted to the dangers of cancer, the sudden realization that your pet might have a tumor is understandably distressing. Knowing what to look for can help you spot potentially dangerous situations and may even save your pet’s life.

First, a little reassurance: skin growths and lumps that develop below the skin surface are a fairly common occurrence, especially in middle-aged and senior dogs. Many are completely harmless — a cosmetic issue, at worst.

As pets age, changes occur in the skin that can cause an overgrowth of skin cells — commonly referred to as skin tags. Some dogs, especially smaller breeds such as poodles and spaniels, are also prone to plugged-up oil glands or hair follicles. These cyst-like growths may be unsightly, but they’re not problematic unless they break open and become irritated or bleed.

Larger breeds, particularly retrievers, are prone to fatty tumors beneath the skin or within muscle tissue. These fat deposits, called lipomas, are soft and can rapidly grow quite large. Lipomas can cause discomfort if they interfere with the animal’s movement, or if their size causes the overlying skin to stretch. In very rare instances, fatty tumors can prove malignant, behaving like more aggressive types of cancerous growths.

So when should you become concerned?

First, beware of growths that look like wounds but don’t heal. This is particularly true for cats. Tumors of the ears, nose and face may begin as reddened, scabbed areas rather than lumps.

Just like people, pets can suffer from melanomas: malignant growths of skin pigment cells. (White-faced animals, like fair-skinned people, are particularly prone to these skin tumors.) Melanomas tend to dark or black in colour, but may also be pale or pink. When these tumors occur in or around the mouth or feet, they can be extremely aggressive, and may spread to the lungs or bone. If you find a mass fitting this description, an immediate trip to the vet is called for.

A mast cell tumor is another common type of cancer — one that can be particularly deceiving. Mast cell tumors generally occur on or under the skin. They tend to be small and grow slowly, sometimes over a period of months or even longer. They look unimpressive, so many owners simply don’t realize how dangerous they can be. These tumors release histamine — the same chemical that the body produces in response to an insect bite or sting — so you may notice your pet scratching or chewing at the area. The lump may also be red, and may vary in size — becoming smaller over time, then growing larger. Again, schedule a visit with your veterinarian as soon as possible. Left untreated, these tumors can become extremely aggressive, potentially spreading to internal organs.

Female dogs and cats that have not been spayed, or that have been spayed later in life, stand a higher risk of developing breast cancer. These tumors occur on the belly, often starting out as firm growths under the skin that feel like tiny pebbles. They can multiply rapidly, and may spread to the lungs or lymph nodes.

Cats are less likely than dogs to develop abnormal growths — but those tumors that do occur are more likely to be cancerous. Some of the most aggressive types of tumors are deceptively innocent in appearance, so a good rule of thumb is to have any growth on your cat checked out as soon as possible. Don’t wait to see if the mass grows. Early diagnosis and treatment can be critical to preventing the advancement of the disease.

If you’ve found an unusual growth, make a point of marking the location prior to the examination. You’d be surprised how often a readily noticeable lump will seem to move or disappear once you’re in the vet’s office — especially if you happen to have a large or long-haired animal. Clip the hair short in the vicinity of the lump, or use a permanent marker on a light-coloured pet. Lipstick also works well and is easy to remove.

For a definitive diagnosis of any abnormal growth, you must arrange a veterinary exam. But your sharp eyes and vigilance are also key to ensuring early diagnosis and successful treatment.

Dr. Pamela Barker is a professional veterinarian with more than 15 years of experience, currently practicing in 100 Mile House, B.C. Her special areas of interest include animal behaviour and training, nutrition and condition for canine athletes, and public education about animal health and care. If you’d like to suggest a topic for one of her future blog posts, please feel free to leave a comment below.

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